Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Good News and Bad News

The good news for the Bush administration is that the latest poll shows that most Americans are getting tired of the Cheney shooting story.  The bad news is that...
  • Bush's approval ratings are at an all-time low (34%)
  • Most people (70%) think the UAE port deal is a really bad idea
  • Approval of the Iraq war is at an all-time low (30%)
  • Only 32% approve of the handling of the Katrina disaster
  • Only 42% approve of the Administration's handling of terrorism
And, the Harper's Magazine cover story is about the case for impeachment.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Underserved in America

Sometimes, I get too wrapped up in big issues, such as universal health coverage, or in minutiae, such as neurochemistry, and lose sight of the middle picture.  In the service of my endless pursuit for balance, I am going to look at a couple of the mid-scale issues in health care today.

The Los Angeles Times today has an article about the state of mental health care for children and adolescents in the USA.  A while back, I wrote that the undersupply of qualified mental health care professionals serving children is a national disgrace.  The LAT confirms that this has not changed.
Young and alone
With only 7,500 child psychiatrists in the U.S., millions who need treatment are left desperate for care.
By Shari Roan, Times Staff Writer
February 27 2006

[...] When they need help the most, some families find, they're on their own.

"It would be the equivalent of your child getting a concussion, in pain, vomiting, and not being able to get any medical help," says Sandra Betler, an Orange County woman whose daughter began cutting herself and talking of suicide last spring but who couldn't find a doctor to see her child. "You think they're going to die at any time."

About 15 million U.S. children ages 9 to 17 are thought to have a serious mental or addictive disorder — such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders, early onset schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. [...]

But only about 7,500 child psychiatrists are currently practicing in the United States — and only 300 new child and adolescent psychiatrists complete training each year. The profession — the only board-certified medical specialty that trains physicians to treat mental disorders in children and teens — is experiencing one of the most severe labor shortages among all medical specialties.

Those doctors who are available are often concentrated in urban areas, leaving some rural counties without a single child psychiatrist.

"Every child psychiatrist in the country has a waiting list," says Fritz, an expert on the workforce shortage. "I've never talked to one who didn't. Many will not even put people on a waiting list because it's too long and ridiculous." [...]
This situation is made worse by the fact that some psychiatrists finish their residency, do a fellowship in child psychiatry, then go into practice in which they see only adults.  I've never been sure why that is, and it would be presumptuous of my to make some kind of negative judgment about that, but it is important to realize that not all of the 300 new child psychiatrists each year will actually see children.

Personally, I would guess that one of the reasons that some child psychiatrists do not see children, is the same reason that I chose to not do a child fellowship.  That is, in addition to the USA having a shortage of child psychiatrists, there also is a shortage of nonmedical child service providers: therapist, social workers, child protection workers, foster care homes, special education teachers, etc.  I thought is would be endlessly disheartening to try to function in that system.  

As an aside, I would like to point out that there is no easy answer to this.  Increasing the supply of child psychiatrists without also increasing the supply of the other child workers would necessarily lead to an overemphasis on medication treatment, to the exclusion of psychosocial interventions.  It is pretty obvious that if a kid is neglected or abused at home, underserved in school, hungry, and otherwise disadvantaged, putting the kid on a medication is not going to do a whole lot of good.  

The whole topic is depressing.  Sometimes, though, there are some points of light amid the gloom.  

This week happens to be National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. (HT: Dr. Serani).  Eating Disorders often start in childhood or adolescence, and as a result, tend to be underrecognized and undertreated.   The "awareness week" activities can help.  Every once in a while, people participate in these kinds of activities, and as a result, end up going ahead and seeking a proper evaluation.  Sometimes they don't seek help right away, but end up doing so after a few days or weeks.  

In cases of eating disorders, quicker treatment can make a big difference.  Some persons with eating disorders develop serious medical complications.  The risk increases with time.  Therefore, quicker treatment can mean fewer complications.  

Another benefit from awareness week events is that they can help educate the general public.  This may reduce stigma, which is always a good thing.  It also may help persons who know persons with eating disorders to become more understanding.  One of the problems that faces a person with an eating disorder is the sense of isolation -- even alienation -- that can accompany the disorder.  The more people understand the problem, the better.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Early Hurricane Season in Florida

Those of us who have been following the news about global warming are worried about the upcoming hurricane season.  But now another storm is brewing in Florida, and it has nothing to do with global warming.  

The storm is being generated by Black Box Voting, which describes itself as "a nonpartisan, nonprofit, 501c(3) organization. We are the official consumer protection group for elections, funded by citizen donations."  They have released a report of their inspection of voting machine logs from Palm Beach, Volusia, and Broward County, used in the November 2, 2004 elections.  Their report shows that the logs contain over 100,000 error messages.  In addition, the logs show many votes were recorded in October 2004, even though the specific machines were not used for early elections.  

In this post, I describe some of the findings documented by Black Box Voting, then I take a look at the way the news media handled the report.  What I find is that there are two problems that, taken together, create the conditions for a perfect storm.  Continue reading, here.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Still Waiting for the "OJ Chip"

'V-Chip 2.0' turns on In March

23 Feb 2006 23:54

Beginning on March 15, the FCC says it will require all new products with digital television receivers - including TVs, video recorders and set-top boxes - to incorporate parental control capabilities by way of a new "open" version of the V-chip that can be reprogrammed to adapt to changing standards.

The V-chip, a small device that allowed televisions to filter out content, was first introduced as part of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

I'm still waiting for the "OJ" chip. The OJ chip, for those of you who don't know, will allow the user to filter out whatever ridiculous news item that all the news networks conspire to repeat ad nauseum, whether it is OJ Simpson, the runaway bride, or Michael Jackson's trial.

The OJ chip will have real social benefit. It will force the news organizations to spend some time on meaningful stories, not the tripe they keep trying to feed us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Santorum's Buzz

The American Prospect has done some interesting investigative reporting about Santorum's financial dealings.  It is most unsavory.  But they missed an important point:
The total Starbucks charges since 2001 come to $558.65. But that is not America’s Foundation’s favorite coffee stop. Since the current term began, the fund has also paid for 94 visits to coffee shops owned by HMS Host of Bethesda, Maryland -- for a total spending of $380. Other visits to both the Leesburg Starbucks and HMS Host were also paid for by Santorum’s 2006 campaign, but in much smaller amounts.
After all that coffee, whatever you do, don't give the man a shotgun!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Prozac OTC?

Aspazia left a comment with some questions, pertaining to my last post.  Since the response is way to long to fit into a comment box, I've responded here.  Note that the response might not make a lot of sense unless you first read the original post, and the comment, here.

Monday, February 20, 2006

It Has Been Bugging Me All Day

Yesterday, ambling around the Internet, I read an article, and a blog post, that seemed to call for some kind of response.  The article is on The Nation's website: Brave Neuro World: The Ethics of the New Brain Science, by Kathryn Schulz; the blog post is Prozac Feminism?, by Aspazia.  What was bugging me, is that my intuition was telling me that there is some kind of important connection between the themes of the two pieces, but I could not quite put my finger on it.

Tonight, I am going to try to clarify for myself what the connection is.  This is not a post that was thought out before writing it.  Rather, I let my unconscious mind wrestle with it, and now I am going to sit down and start typing and see what comes out.  Ah, the joy of blogging!  

This is kind of long, and as usual, I put the long, rambling essays sort of out of the way, in this case here.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Silence Of the Media Lambs

Greg Palast has a catchy audio clip entitled "Silence of the Media Lambs."  It is a 8MB MP3 file, here.  It seems he's upset about the behavior of his colleagues in the journalistic professions.

(Mr. Palast is the reporter who was responsible for the pubic airing of the Downing Street Memo.)

A Light

This is a light.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Why I'm No Good At Cryptography

This post is about cryptography. It is up to the reader to figure out how to find it.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Ann Arbor CodeRed Alerts

Ann Arbor CodeRedThe City of Ann Arbor, MI is establishing an emergency notification system.  The system automatically calls up to 60,000 phone numbers per hour, leaving a message.  It is activated for scary things such as chemical spills, less scary things such as "boil water" alerts, and urgent matters such as missing persons reports.  Ann Arbor residents can click on the graphic to register with the system.

West Wing Blues

The new York Times feature writer, Benedict Carey, has an article on a report about retrospective diagnoses of past American presidents.  According to the article, about half probably had some kind of diagnosable mental illness.
All told, almost half of American presidents from 1789 to 1974 had suffered from a mental illness at some point in life, according to a recent analysis of biographical sources by psychiatrists at Duke University Medical Center. And more than half of those presidents, the study found, struggled with their symptoms — most often depression — while in office.
This sort of thing is almost a pastime for doctors: researching prominent historical figures, and trying to figure out if they has some particular medical problem.  Obviously, there are methodological problems with this, and the results tend to be open to controversy.  

With this particular study, I am almost interested enough to go through and read the entire thing, and try to pick it apart.  Almost interested enough, but not quite.  What does get my attention, though, is a snap poll that is posted along with the version of the article that is up at the AOL News website.  There have been 2,410 responses so far, with the results as follows:

How much do you buy the mental diagnosis of past presidents?
Somewhat 42%
A lot 42%
Not at all 16%
Are you surprised so many were found to have mental illnesses?
No 78%
Yes 22%

I expected there to be a lot more disagreement with the results of the study, but most people seem to find it credible.  In point of fact, the study does at least have face validity.  The reason I say that, is that mental illness affects about half the general population at some point (lifetime prevalence); therefore, it should be no big surprise to find that it has affected about half of our presidents.

CDDO-Im, derived from Oleanolic Acid, May Protect Against Liver Cancer

Tipped off from a post at Science Blog, I just read this article on the NIH website pertaining to a newly-discovery compound that seems to protect against the development of some forms of cancer.  The study they report upon dealt with liver cancer, specifically, but there are theoretical reasons to think that other forms of cancer -- and other diseases -- could be prevented as well.
New Compound May Protect Against Liver Cancer

Researchers have identified a new compound called CDDO-Im that protects against the development of liver cancer in laboratory animals. The compound appears to stimulate the enzymes that remove toxic substances from the cells, thereby increasing the cells’ resistance to cancer-causing toxins. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute, agencies of the federal National Institutes of Health, provided funding to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for the two-year study.

The compound’s effectiveness at very low doses suggests it may have similar cancer-fighting properties in humans. Researchers believe it may be particularly effective in preventing cancers with a strong inflammatory component, such as liver, colon, prostate and gastric cancers. The compound could eventually play a preventive role in a wide range of other illnesses such as neurodegenerative disease, asthma and emphysema. [...]
The news release goes on to say that the compound, CDD-Im, has antiinflammatory properties.  In addition...
CDDO-Im activates a protein called Nrf2 that plays a central role in protecting the cells against the toxic effects of environmental agents. “Nrf2 directs certain genes to stimulate the cell’s defense mechanisms,” he said. “The protein also stimulates key enzymes that can detoxify harmful agents like aflatoxin and remove them from the cell.”
The overall tone of the NIH news release is unusually positive.  As a result, I am fairly sure that all kinds of schemes will be marketed based upon this preliminary research.  It would be wise to keep in mind that the research is in the very early stages.

You may recall that there used to be hope that rofecoxib (Vioxx) could have protective effects against the growth of colon cancer, based upon its antiinflammatory properties.  In fact, it was a study designed to assess this effect that led to the discovery that Vioxx can increase the risk of vascular disease.  

The fact is, inflammation is a complex and delicate process.  It exists for a reason.  Sometimes it makes good sense to interfere with the process, but it should not be assumed that suppressing inflammation is always a good thing.  

Based upon the news release, it sounds as though CDDO-Im has profound, widespread antiinflammatory properties.  It is just a guess at this point, but I would imagine that we would need to find some way to target the effect in some way, to obtain only the effects that we want, and to avoid effects that we do not want.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Ann Coulter As Metaphor

Peter Westre, of Left in the Heartland, recently asked for some commentary about Ann Coulter, from a clinical perspective.  This is an interesting topic.  In fact, one could write a book about the subject.  

I am not going to write a book, but I will make a few comments. Continue reading here.

Please check out Blog with a View, the source for the illustration of the "Energy Vampire."

Monday, February 13, 2006

Linux Graphics Revolution

While we await the general release of Vista, with its much-anticipated advances in graphics technology, Linux is quietly making similar advances.  While it is likely that the full set of features won't be available in Linux for many months, we can be fairly sure that these features will not require as much computing power as Vista will demand.  That means that Linux users should be able to make use of some of these features on older hardware.

Perhaps the first distro to come out with a fully-functioning version of the new graphics architecture will be OpenSUSE, according to this news item at Distrowatch.  The features are already available in 10.1 beta 3, but Novell states that the new technology, Xgl, is not yet ready for the masses:
Xgl is highly experimental code, it has been tested on only a few hardware platforms, and depending on driver state it may even crash your computer. This code is not for the faint of heart. Said that, it works remarkably well on several platforms.
It is not enabled by default.  The user has to go in an manually edit the configuration files in order to get it to work, maybe.  They provide some videos to show the potential of Xgl here.  Perhaps the most interesting video is this one (Spinning Cube .mpg (16MB) | .ogg (7.1MB) | streaming flash), which shows the desktop rendered onto a rotatable 3D cube.  This essentially quadruples the size of the user's desktop.  

While Linux already offers users the choice of multiple desktops, the implementation of the spinning cube visual device makes the use of multiple desktops much easier, and more intuitive.

Technical background for all of this is contained in the Wikipedia article about Xgl.

I will be curious to see how this plays out.  If Vista turns out to require many users to upgrade their hardware just to be able to run their expensive new software, it might encourage a few more people to stop paying for software altogether.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Medical Miscellanea

From Medscape news (free registration required), we learn that
Sustained-Release Naltrexone May Be Safe, Effective for Opioid Dependence: (0.25 CME) Feb. 10, 2006 — A 30-day sustained release depot formulation of naltrexone was safe and effective for the treatment of opioid dependence, according to the results of a randomized, double-blind study reported in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry. [...]
Needless to say, we can infer from this that the company that makes the stuff will have it on the market soon.  I could not find any evidence of "commercial bias" in the report, but it bugs me a little bit that they would use the CME system to advertise their product.  The only caveat I would express about this, is that it is entirely possible for a drug to have a statistically significant effect in a study, but have very limited use in actual practice.  Having said that, it can't be any worse that injecting heroin bought off the street, so if it might help even a little bit, it is worth something.
Vardenafil Improves Erectile Function in Depressed Men: NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Feb 10 - Vardenafil improves erectile function and depression in men with both disorders, according to a report in the January American Journal of Psychiatry.

Although depression is common among men with erectile dysfunction, the authors explain, previous studies have not investigated the potential mental health benefits of phosphodiesterase inhibitor therapy in men with erectile dysfunction. [...]

Depression scores improved significantly during treatment with vardenafil, the researchers note, and significantly more patients treated with vardenafil (58%) experienced a remission of depressive symptoms than did patients treated with placebo (32%). [...]

Huffington Post actually picked up on this one, referring to vardenafil by its brand name, Levitra.  Levitra is similar to Viagra, in that it alleviates erectile dysfunction.  The mechanism by which it might help depression is not known.  I would add that this hardly amounts to a confirmation of a true antidepressant effect, but it is interesting to speculate about it.  
Depression Therapy in Elderly Diabetics Reduces Medical Care Costs: NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Feb 10 - Improved care of depression in elderly diabetics provides benefits at no greater cost than usual care, researchers report in the February issue of Diabetes Care.

"Our study shows that depression can be effectively treated in patients with diabetes and the costs associated with improving depression outcomes were offset by savings in medical costs," lead investigator Dr. Wayne Katon told Reuters Health.

"We believe," he added, "that cost savings occur because improving depression allows patients to better manage their self-care regimens for diabetes -- taking medication, following diet and exercising."

This is the latest of many articles demonstrating the medical offset effect.  Treatment of mental illness can reduce costs associated with medical illnesses.  This is a fact that seems to be ignored by most insurance and health-policy directors.
Omega-6 Fatty Acids Hasten Growth of Prostate Cancer Cells: NEW YORK (Reuters Health) Feb 10 - Adding arachidonic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, to culture media causes prostate cancer cells to grow twice as fast as usual, according to a report in the February 1st issue of Cancer Research.

"Investigating the reasons for this rapid growth, we discovered that the omega-6 was turning on a dozen inflammatory genes that are known to be important in cancer," lead author Dr. Millie Hughes-Fulford, from the San Francisco VA Medical Center, said in a statement.

Further analysis indicated that arachidonic acid was activating these genes through a PI3-kinase pathway known to play a key role in the pathogenesis of cancer.

Adding an NSAID or a PI3-kinase inhibitor to the culture media blocked the arachidonic acid-induced proliferation of prostate cancer cells, the findings indicate.

This illustrates one of the reasons that it is important to be cautious in adopting any treatment, whether it is a standard pharmaceutical, or a natural product.  These things can have unanticipated effects. Having said that, the study cited aboove is only suggestive; it does not prove that taking omega-6 supplements would do anything to humans with prostate cancer.  

We already know that a small dose of aspirin can enhance the antiinflammatory effects of fish oil, so it makes sense to take a little bit of aspirin if taking a combined fish oil and omega-6 supplement.

Impeachment Update

There are 22 members of the US House of Representatives who have signed on to support John Conyers' resolution (H. Res 635) to authorize a Select Committee to investigate the grounds for impeaching President Bush.

California's Lois Capps, Maxine Waters, Barbara Lee, Pete Stark, Mike Honda, Sam Farr, and Lynn Woolsey; New Jersey's Donald Payne; New York's Charles Rangel, Jerry Nadler, Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey, and Major Owens; Texan Sheila Jackson-Lee; Hawaii's Neil Abercrombie; Illinois' Jan Schakowsky; Minnesota's Jim Oberstar; Missouri's William Lacy Clay; Washington's Jim McDermott; Wisconsin's Tammy Baldwin; and Georgia's John Lewis and Cynthia McKinney.

The list was compiled by the investigative journalist, John Nichols, writing for The Nation.  Other than Conyers himself, no one from Michigan has signed on yet.  That includes John Dingell, who is planning to go to his office tomorrow morning and read email from people who live in this area:

People who live elsewhere can find the contact info for their Representatives using the Capwiz search box in the sidebar.

Cheney's Contribution To Medical Progress

First, there was a successful face transplant in France, and now, the United States of America has been cleared to perform a face transplant.  
U.S. Cleared to Choose Face Transplant Patient
Some Doctors Question Ethics of Procedure, but All Agree Surgical Success Is Just the Beginning
By MARTIN BASHIR Feb. 6, 2006 —  On this occasion, the French appear to have won the clinical contest — albeit partially. In the city of Amiens today, doctors presented 38-year-old Isabelle Dinoire to the media as the world's first beneficiary of a face transplant. It was an historic moment in the history of medical procedures, and the French doctors could not conceal their delight at the achievement.  [...]

U.S. Team Given Clearance to Perform Surgery

Here in the United States, there are medical centers where elite surgeons can now perform precisely the same operation as was done in France. In San Francisco, Houston, Louisville, Ky., and Cleveland microsurgery specialists have all the skills needed to do so. [...]
All we need is a donor, and a recipient.  And now, thanks to Dick Cheney, we have a recipient:
Dick Cheney shoots hunter in the face with pellet gun
By Thair Shaikh
Published: 13 February 2006

Dick Cheney, the US Vice-President, accidentally shot a man in the face with a shotgun while hunting for quail on a Texas ranch.

Mr Cheney, 65, sprayed birdshot into Harry Whittington, a fellow hunter, while trying to hit a flock of quail on Saturday afternoon. Mr Whittington, 78, a lawyer from Austin, Texas, was taken to Corpus Christi Memorial Hospital where he was treated for pellet wounds to the right side of his face, neck and chest.
So Dick Cheney does his part to advance medical progress in the USA, to help up catch up with the French!  Perhaps he'll get another award, like the one he got from the NRA:

Of course, based upon this incident, one might think it to be unwise to go hunting with someone who was a draft-dodger.  At least John Kerry knows how to hit what he's shooting at.

And perhaps Cheney will rethink his position on gun control.

Economic Policy Truth

Actually, I am not qualified to say whether this represents the truth or not, but it does seem plausible.  An Economic Snapshot, posted by the Economic Policy Institue, indicates that all of the job growth that has occurred during the Bush Administration can be accounted for by increased government spending.  They point out the significance of this: it means that tax cuts have not contributed to job growth.

This is as good of an illustration as any, of the notion that we need to adopt a more empirically rigorous method of managing public policy.  When legislation is enacted, we should monitor the outcome according to preestablished criteria.  If the desired outcome does not occur, the legislation should be modified or repealed.  To do otherwise, would be analogous to starting someone on blood pressure medication, then not checking to see if the patient's blood pressure goes down.

HT: I first encountered a reference to this at The Ward Report, who found it at TPM Cafe, who got it from MaxSpeak.

Impact of Health Care Proposals


President Bush’s budget includes $156 billion in tax cuts over the next ten years (2007-16) to promote Health Savings Accounts and associated high-deductible insurance policies, with the large majority of this money going to more affluent households. This is slightly larger than the $133 billion in tax cuts for health care that the President proposed in last year’s budget.[1] But this modest increase masks a more fundamental change in the President’s priorities. [...]

HT to the Chicago Tribune editorial, Bush's Rx for insurance: Buy your own, I went to the CBPP site to get more details. Although this is only one perspective, it is enlightening. Note that the appearance of the graph is going to be influenced greatly by the choice of the cut-point between low-income and high-income families. Even allowing for that, this graph betrays the true intent of the proposal: It has nothing to do with health care. Nothing. Calling this nonsense a "health care proposal" is a damn lie. It is a tax break and a welfare program for rich people. A family that can afford to put $10,500 into an HSA gets a 15.3% tax credit. How many people can afford to do that?

очень холодно!

Sub-freezing swim Sixty-four year old Boris Ratushny swims underwater Sunday in a hole in the ice in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the temperature was minus 11 degrees.
(AP photo by Dmitry Lovetsky)
Feb. 5, 2006 This is from the Chicago Tribune photos of the week feature. For some reason it got my attention.

This Is Going Too Far

Cripes, now we are investigating the investigations.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

"Two sticks, a dash and a cake with a stick down"

Does anyone remember that quote, "Two sticks, a dash and a cake with a stick down"?  That was the coded message that al Qaeda used to specify the date for the attacks that took place on September 11, 2001.  Why did they not merely say "September 11," which would have been easier to understand?  

It seems that the only way to explain that would be to assume that they were worried that their communications might be intercepted, by, say, some kind of wiretap.  Here is the quote:
It was hijacker Mohammed Atta who notified Binalsibh after Moussaoui''s capture in a coded telephone message, "two sticks, a dash, and a cake with a stick down", meaning that the fateful day would be September 11. Thus, it was Atta who chose the date.
That was in 2001, and this is 2006, so perhaps that is one of those mildly interesting but unimportant details.  But in 2006, we are supposed to believe that the public discussion of wiretaps has given valuable information to the enemy.  

Obviously, nobody wants to give valuable information to the enemy.  That would be bad.  But if the enemy was already speaking in code in 2001, before the public discussion of wiretaps, isn't it true that they already knew that their communications might be intercepted?  

On a related note, there are people who think that warrantless wiretaps are not really so bad, arguing that innocent people have nothing to hide.  Why would an innocent person care if their phone is tapped?  To that I say, if Mr. Bush is innocent, why would he care if Congress investigates him?  He has nothing to hide.  Terrorists already know that their communications might be intercepted.   Evidently, they've known that for a long time.   If there are specific details about sources and methods that need to be kept secret, that can be handled in closed-door sessions.  There has been disagreement about whether the NSA wiretap program is legal, but plenty of informed observers have given reason to think that it is not.   It is clear that merely briefing members of Congress does not provide sufficient protection, given that this Administration is prone to selective release of information.  A full investigation is needed.  

Currently, there is consideration of additional legislation that would change the FISA law to make the program "more workable," whatever that means.  Presumably, it would make the program legal.  And the Administration seems more willing to brief Congress on the program.  But even if the law is changed, and briefings are given from now on, we still need to know if the wiretap program was illegal from the time of its initiation.  If so, impeachment may be in order.

Friday, February 10, 2006

golden-mantled tree kangaroo

This is a golden-mantled tree kangaroo, as seen on the National Geographic website feature, Photo Gallery: "Lost World" of New Species Found in Indonesia.

The Truth About Logging In This Universe

Maybe, in a parallel universe, I became a naturalist and ended up studying forest ecology.  As it happens, I live in this Universe, and I did not think I could get anyone to pay me to study forest ecology.  Maybe, in a parallel universe, I became a politician.  But I live in this Universe, and in this Universe, I dislike politics.  But I never realized just how much poolitics there is in forest ecology.  So if there is a parallel universe,  with a j7uy5 studying forest ecology, I sure hope there isn't so much politics in that one, too, because that j7uy5 would be pulling his hair out right now.

In this post, I outline the history of an ordinary little research paper, the political furor that it caused, and show how this appears to be another skirmish in the War on Science.  Continue reading here.

Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing: So Much for that Idea!

Most of the ideas presented in the State of the Union speech this year have been fisked ad nauseum, and the proposals in the new budget have met a similar fate.  One of the items in the new budget, however, is not getting as much negative attention as it deserves.
Bush's Budget Seeks $250 Mln for Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Plan

Feb. 6 (Bloomberg) -- The Bush administration, reversing a 29-year-old government policy, is seeking to reprocess the waste produced by nuclear reactors in the U.S. and other nations.

The administration requested $250 million in the budget it unveiled today for development of a process to reduce and recycle radioactive waste. The process would foster expansion of nuclear power in the U.S. by reducing by 80 percent the amount of waste sent to the storage site in Yucca Mountain, Nevada.  [...]
The idea is to have the USA gather spent nuclear fuel from other nations, and extract the plutonium from it.  On the surface, this seems like a good idea.  But what do our own experts at the US Dept. of Energy think of it?
Department of Energy Research Contradicts Administration Claims of Proliferation-Resistant Reprocessing
New Initiative Would Make Nuclear Terrorism Easier
February 9, 2006

In testimony today, Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman reiterated administration claims that its new initiative to extract plutonium—which can be used to make nuclear weapons—from spent nuclear reactor fuel will use a "proliferation-resistant" technology that would make the plutonium inaccessible and undesirable to terrorists and states pursuing nuclear weapons. However, this claim is contradicted by prior research conducted by two Department of Energy (DOE) scientists: Dr. E. D. Collins from DOE's Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative, and Dr. Bruce Goodwin of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

"Perhaps Dr. Bodman is unaware of this technical work," noted Dr. Edwin Lyman, Senior Scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, "It clearly demonstrates that the administration's new reprocessing program will pose a serious risk that terrorists could acquire the material needed to make a nuclear weapon from a U.S. facility."
The idea behind reprocessing is to mix plutonium with more radioactive elements, and convert it into powder or liquid forms.  However, the DOE experts claim that any known method of reprocessing would not make the plutonium any more difficult to steal, and it would make it more difficult to keep track of the exact quantity of plutonium being handled.
Because it would be converted to liquid and powder forms, it is difficult to precisely measure and keep track of this material. There are several instances in which foreign reprocessing plants have been unable to account for enough plutonium to make ten or more nuclear weapons for over a period of months or years.  The modified reprocessing technologies in DOE's proposal would make this problem even worse, because the mixture of plutonium and other elements would be even harder to precisely measure.
So why would we spend $250 million on a program that our own experts think is not going to work?  Where is that money really going to go?  Is this like the "Star Wars" stategic defense initiative: just a givaway to defense contractors?  Or is it a way of funding some other kind of nuclear research, something that they would rather not fund openly?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

DHEA for Depression and Schizophrenia?

I almost did not write this, because it might appear that I am promoting the use of DHEA for treatment of mental illness.  Just to be clear, I am not promoting the use of DHEA for any purpose whatsoever.  

Medscape has a couple of brief articles about the use of DHEA.  (Free registration required)  One is a report on a study of the use of DHEA for mild to moderate depression; the other is a report of a study testing DHEA for the alleviation of symptoms of schizophrenia.  The depression article offers 0.25 CME credits.
DHEA May Be Effective for Midlife-Onset Minor and Major Depression

Feb. 8, 2005 — Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) can be effective for midlife-onset minor and major depression, according to the results of a placebo-controlled, randomized trial published in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"Alternative and over-the-counter medicines have become increasingly popular choices for many patients who prefer not to take traditional antidepressants," write Peter J. Schmidt, MD, from the National Institute of Mental Health in Rockville, Maryland, and colleagues. "The adrenal androgen and neurosteroid DHEA is available as over-the-counter hormonal therapy and previously has been reported to have antidepressant-like effects." [...]

DHEA treatment for six weeks was associated with improvement in both primary outcome measures compared with both baseline (P < .01) and with six weeks of placebo (P < .01). After DHEA treatment, 23 subjects had a 50% or greater reduction in baseline HDRS-17 scores, as did 13 subjects after placebo treatments. DISF scores relative to baseline and placebo conditions also improved significantly after six weeks of DHEA treatment. The treatment with DHEA was well-tolerated.

The article pertaining to schizophrenia is older (2003):
DHEA Augmentation Improves Schizophrenic Symptoms

Feb. 13, 2003 — Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) augmentation markedly improved negative, depressive, and anxiety symptoms in patients with schizophrenia, according to the results of a small, randomized, double-blind trial reported in the February issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry.

"In humans, DHEA has demonstrated efficacy in the improvement of mood, with increased energy, interest, confidence, and activity levels in various populations," write Rael D. Strous, MD, from the Beer Yaakov Mental Health Center in Israel, and colleagues. "The findings from this study raise important issues regarding the role of neurosteroids in general, and DHEA in particular, in the ongoing symptomatology and pharmacotherapy of schizophrenia." [...]
Why not rush to recommend DHEA for patients in the respective populations?  First of all, DHEA is metabolized to androgenic and estrogenic compounds, and may affect sex steroid-sensitive tumors.  


DHEA has the potential to cause virilization: oily skin, acne, voice deepening, and increase facial and body hair.  So it is basically a hormone treatment.  That is not to say that it should not be used, but it does mean that there are theoretical reasons to think it may have more serious adverse effects.  As was the case with hormone replacement therapy for women, it would take a large, careful study to evaluate the risk-benefit ratio.  Neither DHEA study was anywhere near large enough, nor long enough, to detect problems that would occur at a low incidence, or that would occur after a long period of treatment.

Hormones tend to be powerful drugs, and should be used with great caution.  The fact that DHEA is derived from natural sources, rather than being made in a factory, should not be taken as an indication of safety.  The fact that the FDA does not regulate the sale of DHEA, likewise, should not be taken as an indication of safety.  Furthermore, the doses used in the studies were above that which would provide a normal level of hormones.  (50mg/day restores normal levels in elderly persons.)

In the heirachy of evidence-based medicine, these two DHEA studies would be ranked rather low on the scale of validity for use in medical decision-making.  However, the two studies do show how some potential new treatments trypically are assessed early in the course of drug development.  Also, citing these studies gives me an opportunity to show why we need to be cautious when it comes to evaluating such early reports.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Free Air

Zingerman's has free air

Free Press co-founders Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols spoke at the University of Michigan tonight, not about free air, but about freedom of the press.  Mostly, the presented the argument they developed in their new book, Tragedy & Farce.  

They  talked about the history of journalism, focusing on the development of professional journalism in the early 20th century.  They then spoke of the reason that professional journalism was superior to the journalism that preceded it, but also of the problems that it introduced.  Those problems, they argue, have caused the media to drift away from their mission of promoting democratic principles.  

The Tragedy part of their book deals with how the media were complicit in selling the Iraq war to the American people.  The Farce part addresses the way in which the media allow those in power to define the terms of our political discourse.  Those in power are the ones who decide what is newsworthy, and what is not.  This, they argue, promotes the dilution of political debate.  Rather than people considering the full range of issues that are important, they follow the one or two topics that those in power want to emphasize.  

The media do not report about politics; they act as stenographers for those who are already in power.  They do not present the public with the issues that voters need to know in order to make informed decisions in the voting booth.  Instead, they turn political campaigns into popularity contests.  
(Don't be surprised if the 2008 Presidential campaign includes a swimsuit contest.)

McChesney and Nichols concluded by talking about one hopeful development.  You may recall how, a couple of years ago, there was a proposal in front of the FCC that would allow greater consolidation of media companies.  That proposal failed.  It failed because of grassroots opposition that included both ends of the political spectrum.  They are hopeful that this will crystallize into a movement that promotes media reform.

One thing that they did not talk about tonight was the topic of Free Air.  Fortunately, they have a lot to say about the topic on their website, Freepress.net.  

click to follow link

From time to time, we see ad campaigns that trumpet opposition to community wireless "internets" access.  The opposition to free wireless broadband access is generated by media conglomerates who stand to lose profits if people have control over their own access to news and entertainment.  Those trumpets can be ignored for now, although as more communities gear up to provide the service, it is likely that the big media companies will roll out a major media blitz of opposition.  Needless to say, there is no reason to pay any attention to what they want.  We need to focus on what we want.  

If the major media sources had been doing their job, I might consider pitching in to protect their revenue stream.  But since they have failed miserably, they will have to fend for themselves.

What If?

I used to read a lot of science fiction.  Many of the stories were what if? stories.  Sometimes they were interesting, but after a while, I got tired of what if?  Besides that, after a while it seems as though all of the new what ifs? are recycled versions of the old ones.

Earlier this evening, I was reading a collection of essays selected by Demos regarding human enhancement technology.  It is a thought-provoking body of work, but the questions again seem to have been drawn from the recycle bin.  The answers have not, which is why the collection is worthwhile.  But it was interesting questions that I was really looking for tonight.

Alas, sometimes you march off to the essay with the question you have, not the question you wish you had.

So the question I have is this: what would it do to our society (in the USA) if the Supreme Court always consisted of exactly one woman, and one man, and all decisions had to be unanimous?  Notice that I am not asking whether it would be a good idea or not.  Also, I am not particularly interested in what effect this would have on case law, except to the extent that those laws would change society.

Would this change our concept of gender equality?  If so, would it be more polarizing, or would it promote an end to the gender wars?  Would we use the same criteria for nominating and approving the male judge and the female judge?  Or would we unconsciously think that the male judge should somehow have a different role in the deliberations, compared to the female judge?  If so, how would we define the role of the female judge as compared to that of the male judge?  

If the court rendered a decision that you personally did not like, would you find yourself disliking both judges equally, or would you feel differently about them, depending upon their gender?  Would you ever find yourself believing that one gender "gave in" to the other, and how would you feel about it?  Would you ever feel that one of the judges "betrayed" his or her gender, by making a particular decision?  

If, in this hypothetical court, both judges were required to prepare written explanations of the reasoning for their decisions, would we be able to read those opinions without stopping to think about the gender of the author?  How often would we say, that's not how a woman/man should think?

It does seem likely that there would be a lot said and written about the influence of gender on the process of decision-making in the Supreme Court.

Would the endless discussion of gender issues make us all so thoughtful and considerate, that gender conflicts would disappear entirely?  Or would all that discussion seem threatening to our already-entrenched beliefs?

Would religious leaders feel compelled to speak out about the structure of the court, and the proper roles of men and women in society?  Would anyone listen?  Would evolutionary psychologists be able to explain to us the differences between the brains of male judges and female judges?  

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Bush Is An Idiot

See this:
Mr Bush wants to cut spending on Medicare - the healthcare programme for elderly and disabled people - by $35.9bn over the next five years.
Is he totally nuts, or what?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

RR4 Experience

I wrote some more about my experience with RR4 Linux. It is rather long, and not very interesting for anyone who does not care about Linux, which is most of my readership, so the full text is on The Rest of the Story, here.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Distrowatch Watch: RR4, RR64, and Knoppix

RR4 Linux 3.0 Beta 0
has been released: "RR4 Linux 3.0 is the most advanced and complete Gentoo GNU/Linux distribution on the Internet. SMP, XEN, Internet kiosk, XsistenCe, Gentoo Linux Installer and much more. Features: powered by Linux kernel 2.6.15 (with Reiser4 support); full SMP support; Xen 3.0 support; compiled for i586 with MMX support; NPTL glibc 2.3.6 with performance patches; VMware Ready (using SCSI or ATA); Internet kiosk capabilities (using NX 1.5.0 framework); new modular X.Org 7.0; official desktop environment: KDE 3.5.0; included: GNOME 2.12.2, XFce 4.2.3, Fluxbox 0.9.14, Enlightenment 0.16...." Read the rest of the release announcement for more details. Download via BitTorrent: RR4-Linux-3.0.b0.iso.bz2 (2,584MB, MD5).
RR64 is the 64-bit version of RR4.

I've been messing around with this for a while, and now there is a new beta; it is a very nicely polished distro with "mouthwatering eye candy."  I like it because in some ways it is a good distro to mess around with.  It runs as a live DVD, so even when you completely ruin everything, you can recover easily. 

It is Gentoo-based, so you can explore the mysteries of compiling the entire operating system from source code and optimizing for your own machine.  Or, you can install prebuilt binaries right from the DVD.  It installs along with Windows.  One disadvantage, though, compared to SuSE and some others, is that the installer does not automatically add other installed distros to your boot menu.  Or at least version 2.65 did not.  I didn't let 3.0b0 try; instead, I told it to not install a boot loader, then edited the GRUB menu by hand.  So be ready for that if you install RR4 with another Linux distro on a different partition.

The XsistenCe feature that is mentioned above, is a feature that lets you boot from the DVD, set things up the way you like, then save your preferences in a profile somewhere, such as a USB flash drive.  It then automatically restores your preferences when you boot again.

In some ways, RR4 and RR64 are like Knoppix, but the author seems to be more aggressive about using the most recent releases of all the packages.  Knoppix emphasizes stability; RR4 emphasizes innovation. 

Speaking of Knoppix: Extreme Tech has an article on using Knoppix as a disaster recovery tool when Windows won't boot.  I keep a live DVD of Knoppix at the office for this purpose, although I did not end up using it the last time Windows borked itself.  Since I had a recent backup, I just reformatted and reinstalled it.  So I can't personally vouch for this procedure, but it ought to work:
If your Windows system crashes completely and cannot be recovered using the registry editor or the boot.ini, you may face some serious problems if important data on the system wasn't backed up. Knoppix can come to your rescue by enabling you to access your Windows partition and save your important data to multiple devices for restoration later. These devices include USB jump drives (also called flash drives or key drives), CD-Rs and DVD-Rs, and copying data over the network. This section explains how to recover and save the data that you'll restore after you have re-installed Windows following a crash. [...]
Microsoft will never offer a similar capability.  Live CDs and DVDs run the complete operating system and all applications.  If Windows had that capability, their sales would drop off substantially.  By refraining from offering this capability, Microsoft protects it profits.  I don't blame them for that, but I also would not blame end users for getting fed up with it, and turning to an alternative.

Although my description of RR4 might make it sound as though it would not appeal to a beginner or an intermediate user, the fact is, it is not difficult to use at all.  Its just that you need a little experience to make full use of it.  But anyone who knows how to download something, and how to burn a DVD, and boot from a DVD, can get it up and running.  You don't have to install anything on your hard drive if you don't want to.  On the other hand, if that is all you intend to do, then Knoppix might be a better choice.

Stranded Alaska Oil Ship Rescued

No obvious damage was done, but even so, this is a bit alarming:
Stranded Alaska oil ship rescued
BBC Bews - Friday, 3 February 2006, 23:41 GMT

A laden oil tanker that ran aground on the Alaskan coast after being struck by a fast-moving ice floe has been refloated, the US Coast Guard says.

Tug boats used high tides to steer the Seabulk Pride away from the beach in Nikisi where it got stuck on Thursday.

"The ship is once again a ship rather than a beach ornament," an official reportedly said, adding that there was no sign of oil leaking from the vessel.

The ship was at port, taking on a load of oil. The ice flow pushed the 575 ft. ship a few hundred yards along the shore, before the ship came to rest in some silt. Obviously, the ice floe was moving with considerable force.

This illustrates one of the hazards that global warming is going to cause, and may give rise to doubts about our energy security. It also calls into question the wisdom of attempting to drill for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. I imagine that when the permafrost starts to melt, the ground will become unstable, threatening the integrity of all the drilling equipment.

Personally, I don't care if the oil companies take a huge loss, but I do care about what this kind of incident could do the the environment.

I know I've harped on this before, but wouldn't it be a better idea to invest in renewable energy sources, located in the USA? Wouldn't it enhance our security to have thousands of small generators distributed thoughout the country, so that no single disruption can cause a widespread power outage?

Thursday, February 02, 2006

A Few More Comments

I know I've reached my politics quota for this week, but I have a few more comments.  

After the SOTU, scientists were cautiously optimistic about a few things.  But scientists are prone to dissect things, and it turns out that the President's science policy comments are mostly deceptions.  PZ has a quick rundown here, focused on the fact that Bush is not really going to increase the number of math and science teachers.  Instead, he is proposing to retrain existing teachers, without proposing any funding for that.  But perhaps the most egregious foul was noted in the UK paper, The Guardian, and picked up at Cosmic Variance.
Would it surprise you to learn that, when George W. Bush in his State of the Union Address proposed a multibillion dollar initiative to strengthen education and research in math and science, two-thirds of the money is actually not in the form of funding, but rather tax breaks for businesses? In fact, tax breaks that already exist, but are renewed annually, and Bush would simply like to make permanent?
This, of course, is a clever shell game.  He takes credit for tax cuts, then relabels the same legislation and takes credit for it again, by saying he is increasing funding for research.  But it is not academic research he is talking about, it is research that business probably would do anyway.

Now, it is not necessarily a bad idea to give businesses a tax break for research, but if that is what he is doing, he should just come right out and say that.  What bugs me about this, though, is not merely the shell-game aspect of it.  What also bugs me is the fact that it runs contrary to the economic principles that neocons trumpet all the time.  Their notion is that free-market economics should drive everything.  According to that principle, businesses should assess the potential economic benefits of a given research track, and pursue it if the market will reward them for it.  If it doesn't pay off, they should take the risk.  

Under this plan, businesses get a break regardless of whether the business decision was a sound one.  It's corporate welfare, plain and simple.


Update:  Upon further review, the call made on the field stands.  Furthermore, an additional foul was committed.  He says that his goal is to increase the number of math and science teachers.  But the push to eviscerate the public school system inevitably would lead to lower pay for teachers.  Plus, the cuts in student loan programs will make it harder for kids to go to college.  How is it going to help, if students aspiring to become math and science teachers face greater financial hurdles, yet fewer financial rewards, for their chosen career?  Mr. Bush's actions contradict his words.

Build Your Own

The last time I built a computer, I took care to design one that would operate quietly.  I've been thinking about doing it again, this time aiming for complete silence.  Usually, the key to that is in the selection of components, and in figuring the right balance between performance and power consumption.  There are many exotic components available for this purpose, but I never though a caulking gun would have any place in the project.

Now, the folks at Tom's Hardware have figured out how to do it.  They built a computer that is cooled entirely using ordinary cooking oil.  Having no fans, it is nearly silent.

I've been reading Tom's Hardware for a long time; they have one of the most informative hardware-geeky sites out there.  But this is more that just geeky-cool, it is everyone-cool.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Warning Regarding Importation of Drugs

Today, the US FDA released an announcement, warning of the possibility of medication substitution errors.  In some cases, drugs have brand names in the US that are the same as brand names for different drugs in other countries.  That is, the same name is used for two entirely different products.  In other cases, the brand names are not exactly alike, but are close enough that they could be mixed up easily.  

An example of the first kind of error:
In the United States, "Norpramin" is the brand name for an anti-depression drug containing desipramine but, in Spain, the same brand name, "Norpramin," is used for a drug that contains omeprazole, a treatment for stomach ulcers.
An example of the second kind of error:
For example, in the United Kingdom, "Amyben," a brand name for a drug product containing amiodarone, used to treat abnormal heart rhythms, could be mistaken for "Ambien," a U.S. brand name for a sleeping pill.
The FDA states that this is a reason that US residents should not get US prescriptions filled in foreign countries.  Personally, I think that is too stringent of a warning.  The fact is, errors of the second type can occur here.  For example, there have been reports of patients getting Lamictal instead of Lamisil, and vice versa.  The warning actually should be, for patients who intend to get prescriptions filled in another country, to be sure that both the brand name and the generic name of the drug is written on the prescription, then double check when they actually get the prescription.  People do need to realize that they are increasing the risk of a medication substitution error when they fill prescriptions in other countries, but that does not necessarily mean that they should not do it.  It does mean that they should be willing to accept responsibility for the increased risk, and do their own checking.

Duplicity in Action

We heard the President talk about expanding research into alternative fuels, but said nothing about conservation.  He also did not fulfil his constitutional mandate to inform congress of the state of the Union.  If he had, when he was talking about energy, he might have let us know about what he is doing while the media is napping:
Analysis of “Time Sensitive” Plans Shows BLM Shifted Policies to Facilitate Dramatically Expanded Drilling in New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming, and Utah

January 12, 2006 (Washington, DC) - An analysis of 11 pending and completed oil and gas plans for key Western areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management shows that BLM has increasingly overridden its own policies to facilitate dramatically expanded drilling on public lands. The analysis of 11 BLM priority plans, which affect more than 30 million acres in Alaska, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Utah, shows that the plans will lead to more than triple the amount of wells allowed to be drilled, as compared to current conditions.
"In its rush to open more and more Western land to oil and gas development, the Interior Department has essentially abandoned its mandate to manage these lands for a variety of uses, including recreation and conservation," said The Wilderness Society's Nada Culver, who analyzed the plans. "Instead, the agency is auctioning off public lands to the semi-private profitable domain of oil and gas companies. The amount of land dedicated for planned oil and gas development will exclude other uses and will inevitably permanently damage these places. The lack of balance in these plans is shocking and has grave implications for Westerners and wildlife that depend on these lands." [...]
He's auctioning off land -- our land -- to private companies that will use it to expand their profits, which are already at record levels.  That is the state of our Union.